With their headscarves tied under their chins, facing the fire hoses, the village women step forward to protect their forest threatened by the expansion of a coal mine in south-west Turkey.
Turkey: Thermal power plants threaten Akbelen forest and surrounding landscape
“They’re cutting down our trees, uprooting our olive groves, digging up the earth and ransacking everything for thermal power stations, for gold and coal. They’re ruining the country, it’s over,” accuses Ayse Coban, 54, from the village of Ikizkoy.
“We’re ruined, it brings tears to my eyes”.
In the mostly pine forest of Akbelen, above the seaside resort of Bodrum, chainsaws went into action last week, protected by gendarmes and armored vehicles. At the same time, several fires were reported in the country, and neighbouring Greece was battling monstrous blazes.
Hundreds of environmental activists joined the villagers in what has become, since 2021, a national battle against deforestation and the immoderate use of coal in Turkey. Coal supplies the country with a third of its primary energy needs (according to the International Energy Agency, in 2021) and a third of its electricity.
Fighting for the Akbelen forest: Village women protect the environment against Limak
In 2020, the Ministry of Forestry granted YK Energy, owned by the powerful Turkish holding company Limak, the extension of its coal mine in the Akbelen region. Since then, the number of appeals has multiplied and the public is not disarmed.
For Deniz Gumusel, an environmental engineer and environmental activist, “we’re talking about three thermal power plants, with old and dirty technology”, she accuses.
An aerial view of the region, taken by an AFP drone, shows a vast, bare expanse of land, amidst mountains that are still green and wooded.
“It’s been four years since a dozen village women succeeded in preventing Limak Holding, one of the world’s most powerful groups, from entering the forest”, notes the engineer.
“These women, who are said to be uneducated and ignorant of the realities of the world, are protecting and fighting for the climate: Akbelen is sending a wonderful message to the rest of the country and the planet”. According to the lawyer defending the population, the work was suspended for the duration of the electoral campaign that saw the re-election of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on May 28.
“The third and final expert opinion was conducted in August 2022. We appealed to the court, but it ignored our objection and the suspension of logging was lifted last November”, explains Ismail Hakki Atal, who refers to the experts as “hired killers” employed by the company. But immediately after the elections, he continues, “we heard rumors saying, now that we’ve won the elections, we can start cutting down the forest”.
Controversy: Limak’s link with the head of state in a criticized mining project
Critics of the project point to the close ties between the head of the Limak holding company, which owns 50% of YK Energy, and the head of state. In a press release on Monday, the Mugla provincial authorities announced the end of the “work initiated by the General Directorate of Forestry on July 24”.
They promise to “rehabilitate” the mining areas by “planting 130,000 trees”, but warn against “provocative and deliberate attacks” on the gendarmerie and police. On Sunday, villagers and environmentalists were at their wits’ end when they turned to FC Barcelona, which has entrusted Limak with the renovation of its famous Camp Nou stadium.
“We, villagers aged from 7 to 95, are trying to stop the massacre and are exposed to gas and blows,” they wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by AFP. “Camp Nou will bear the shame of a renovation carried out by a company that violates human rights, contravenes the objective of the Paris Agreement and all relevant United Nations documents” in the fight for climate, they write. Calling on the Catalan club to “terminate the contract if Limak does not renounce the Akbelen forest massacre”.